This interview with William O. Baker begins with a discussion of Baker's childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where his parents were involved in raising fowl and developing therapy for turkey pathology; this, along with his father's work in minerals and mining, exposed Baker to both organic and inorganic chemistry. Upon completing high school, Baker attended Washington College, where he received a broad education in liberal arts while studying chemistry with K. S. Buxton and became oriented towards the Bell System and Laboratories through their educational and public affairs programs. He was attracted to Princeton University because of its size, strength in physical and organic chemistry, and links to European chemists, and in 1935 began graduate studies there amidst the College of Chemistry's creation of a new scientific frontier involving physical chemistry and Professors H. Taylor, H. Eyring, R. H. Fowler, and C. P. Smyth. Baker pursued study in physical chemistry, thermodynamics, chemical reactions, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics and also attended weekly seminars sponsored by Taylor, featuring major international figures in physical chemistry and physics. Following his interest in physical chemistry, Baker conducted Ph.D. research under Smyth, following a program on the dielectric properties of medium length chains and graduating in 1938.
In 1939, following the advice of Smyth and others at MIT and his own interest in combining industrial and basic science and technology, he accepted a Bell Labs position as member of technical staff and began work with C. S. Fuller and J. H. Heiss on structures and properties of high polymeric substances. The interview discusses Baker's early career at the Labs, the atmosphere there, equipment availability, information exchange, and the use of technical memoranda to introduce technical findings to colleagues. Also discussed are relationships between Summit Labs and New York headquarters staff and within research groups; colleagues, including S. O. Morgan; and the use of literature research to monitor polymer chemistry developments at DuPont and in industry internationally.
The second interview begins with an overview of Bell Labs' role in the birth of the solid state era, and the use of Labs' resources for new research programs supporting telecommunications and information handling. Baker undertook a program of research first using x-ray diffraction techniques to study crystallinity of polymers, then synthesizing a range of polyesters and polyamides and investigating the relationship between chemical structure and physical properties. The interview describes application of these research findings to electronics and communications industries and the emergence of polyethylene and polyethylene-like materials throughout all industry; discussed in relation to this are the contributions of W. Carothers, W. J. Shackelton, P. Debye, W. A. Yager, K. K. Darrow, L. A. Wood, and others.
In 1942, Bell Labs became the center of the U. S. Rubber Reserve, formed to conserve existing rubber and create synthetic rubber for use during World War II. Baker contributed to the Reserve's scientific planning and work by applying earlier research on crystalline cellulose esters, polyesters and polyamides. Bell Labs' R. R. Williams and Fuller recruited major industrial and university centers and researchers for the project, including I. M. Kolthoff, Debye, and others from Cornell, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and U. S. Rubber. The interview describes work involving the discovery and use of microgel, a macromolecule crucial to the synthetic rubber program and later applied to electrical insulators and structural materials in communications, electronics, and throughout the rubber industry.
Also described are meetings of the Rubber Research Discussion Group involving academic and industrial scientists who later became leaders of postwar polymer science. A central section of the interview details postwar research involving polymers in microwave structures and as structural elements throughout U. S. industry, and Baker's involvement with transistors and solid state physics. Throughout the interview, scientific themes are related to changes in the organizational structure of Bell Labs, and to patterns of communication within relevant scientific communities. The final section of the interview focuses on Baker's administrative career, particularly his roles and philosophies as assistant director of the Chemical Laboratories from 1951 to 1954 -- while R. M. Burns was director -- and as vice president of research from 1955 to 1973, with overall responsibility for all research programs. Baker also served as Bell Labs' president and chairman of the board.
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Baker, William O. (William Oliver), interviewed by Marcy Goldstein in AT & T Bell Laboratories on June 18, 1985. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0013. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/9019s341g.
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